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Older Children Prioritise Friendships Over Group Membership When Sharing

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A new study explores how friendships and group memberships affect sharing behaviour in Chinese children.

A recent study published in The Journal of Genetic Psychology has delved into how friendships and minimal group memberships influence the sharing behaviour of children aged 4–6 and 9–12 in China. This research provides insight into the complex interplay between personal relationships and group dynamics in early childhood development.

The study’s primary objective was to examine how children balance the act of sharing between friends and group members, particularly when these relationships conflict. This investigation was grounded in the minimal group paradigm (MGP), a method used to create arbitrary group distinctions that lack real-world significance. The researchers sought to understand how children from different age groups prioritise these social relationships during sharing tasks.

The research involved 215 children, divided into two age groups: 121 children aged 4–6 and 94 children aged 9–12. The children were recruited from a middle-class community in China. The experimental design was a 2×2 between-subjects framework, focusing on two variables: the recipient’s relationship to the child (friend vs. stranger) and the recipient’s group membership (in-group vs. out-group).

Each participant was asked to share seven objects with a recipient, whose identity was manipulated to be either a friend or a stranger and either from the same group or a different group. This setup aimed to reveal the children’s sharing preferences based on these variables.

The study yielded several significant findings:

  • Friendship over strangers. Both age groups shared more resources with friends compared to strangers. This outcome underscores the importance of personal relationships for children’s prosocial behaviour.
  • Group membership influence. Only the younger age group (4–6 years old) showed a significant preference for sharing more with in-group members than out-group members. This preference did not hold for the older age group (9–12 years old).
  • Interaction of friendship and group membership. Among the younger children, there was no significant distinction between sharing with an out-group friend and an in-group stranger. However, older children (9–12 years) shared more with out-group friends than with in-group strangers, indicating that friendship overrides group membership as children age.
  • Age-related differences. The study found an interaction between age and minimal group membership, suggesting that the minimal group effect diminishes as children grow older.

These findings suggest that while friendship and group membership both play crucial roles in young children’s sharing behaviour, their relative importance shifts with age. Younger children appear to be more influenced by group membership, whereas older children place a higher value on friendships.

The study contributes to our understanding of how children navigate social relationships and make decisions based on these connections. It also highlights the developmental trajectory of social behaviour, showing how the influence of group dynamics and personal relationships evolves over time.

The implications of this research are significant for educators and parents. Understanding that younger children might prioritise group affiliation can help guide their social interactions in group settings, such as classrooms. For older children, fostering strong friendships might be more beneficial in promoting prosocial behaviour.

These insights can inform strategies for conflict resolution and cooperation in children, emphasising the importance of friendships in their social development.

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